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Xenophobia in Zambia: The post-morterm result

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Soldiers patrolling the townships

Soldiers patrolling the townships

By Hope Nyambe

As sanity returns in mostly poor low income, high density residential areas around Lusaka that were gripped by a wave of violence, looting and xenophobic attacks, it is imperative that we critically and objectively examine some of the causes that led to a normally peaceful and docile citizenry to engage in such despicable acts of violence and cowardice. Zambian generally live for the buzz of the moment and most ‘happenings’ are forgotten within two weeks of their occurrence. Most of the time, it’s without clearly analysing their causes and the inevitable need for policy change to prevent them from happening again. We have already forgotten about the looting and xenophobic attacks, we are now buzzing about the adoptions and political defections going on. We lack retrospective.

From the onset, it is good to note that whenever violence of this nature occurs, it is a clear indication and attribution to a series of policy failures.  I examine some of these failures in detail.

Police Tactics and PR

Repeated failures by the Zambian Police (force) to bring down levels of violent crime or under control could have directly contributed to the rioting and xenophobic attacks.  When you have a police service that is generally viewed by the general public as corrupt, selective in administering law and order,  and overly incompetent, it cultivates an environment where people resort to violence without any fear of reprisal, arrest or successful persecution. The general failure by the police force to maintain the rule of law has conditioned many poor communities to violent behaviour. Seeing the laxity in policing, organised criminal elements within communities have taken full advantage of the resultant chaos and disorder to rob, rape, and loot.

Looking at the pattern of events prior to the xenophobic attacks and rioting, it is clear to see that the police missed a number of opportunities to prevent both. In normal circumstances, after a serious crime such as a murder, it is a prerequisite that the police maintain a heavy and visible presence in the area where the crime occurred as a way of reassuring the residents and community of their safety. It also shows the community that the police are actually doing something about it.  In most of the ritual killing that occurred in Lusaka, the bodies of victims lay uncollected for hours on end at the crime scenes. When the police eventually turned up, the basically picked up the bodies and disappeared to wherever they come from. This left a vacuum, a vacuum filled by speculations, rumours, anxiety and fear in the community. A vacuum welcomed by criminal elements.

Secondly, the public relations by the police were simply disastrous. We had the police spokesperson announce the arrest of four suspects with suspected human flesh even before ascertaining that it was actually human flesh. The statement was later ‘retracted’ by a statement alleging that no human flesh was found in any of the fridges of both foreign nationals or the arrested suspects. The damage had already been done.

Political debauchery

The content and depth of political discussion in Zambia today is worryingly shallow and devoid of any real policy substance. It has become the norm for politicians to stand in front of large crowds and simply and shamelessly propagate tribal hatred and other falsehoods. When you have a clergy, a person of high standing in society, openly and falsely accuse a prominent political leader of Satanism because of their wealth, it filters down to community level, who in-turn view local successful business people as practising Satanism.  Note that there is no truth in any of these pronouncements; they are simply made for simple political gain. Such falsehoods give impetus to violent acts against individuals within communities suspected of being involved in Satanism simply because of their success.

When such violence occurs within our communities, it is prudent and responsible for every well meaning Zambian to condemn it in the strongest possible terms. And yet, it was become the norm for politician to remain mute if the violence is perpetuated by people within their party or alliances. Some have even encouraged their cadres to ‘fix’ the opponents. There are known fanners of violence within our communities that are funded by prominent political figures. Unfortunately, it not that the police don’t have the information, skills or equipment to deal with known perpetrators of violence. They too are under strict instruction not to ‘embarrass’ the party or its leadership.

Economic Downturn

The country’s economic performance and outlook has been dismal to say the least. Despite massive infrastructure development, policy failures in electricity supply have resulted in policies that can best be described as hostile to the mining sector and Agriculture (commercial farmers in particular). The rise in fuel cost has meant that both the mining and agricultural sector have had to reduce production, and in some cases, close down operations completely. The inevitable result has been massive employment lose and increased food prices. Coupled with other factors such as rising inflation and unstable currency, the welfare of poor communities has been greatly compromised, forcing families to scale down on essentials or basic staples. When ordinary citizens see misguided and extraordinary arrogant government officials flaunt corruptly gained wealth whilst they labour and yet still live in squalor, these factors alone are sufficient to spark much of the anger that was and is still visible around poor communities across the nation.

Government will naturally deny that the state of the economy has nothing to do with the looting and xenophobic attacks. Yet, the fact that all the looting was confined to the poor communities of Lusaka, with looters mainly targeting business entities with edible commodities, clearly eliminates any element of organised and systematic criminal activity. These were basically poor, starving and frustrated individuals who felt hopeless against an aggressive economic tide, and whose only way of venting that hopelessness was by stealing from foreign owned shops. But why the foreign businesses only and not the indigenous owned? When politicians fan tribal hatred among communities, the impact of alienation is more on foreign individuals than on the ingenious individuals. In the absence of foreigners however, the end result is genocide. Take note that all the economic factors that lead to the looting and xenophobic attacks, are factors in government’s direct policy address.

What’s the way forward?

The simplest and dumbest solution is to send the army to control unarmed civilian populations. The army is not trained, equipped, or prepared for such a utility. The risk of accidental fatalities caused by the army using live ammunition could further agitate tension and most certainly see a nationwide uprising against the government. It also undermines the efficacy of the police who still have to return to man the community when the army is back in the barracks.

The immediate short term response is a well thought out and coordinated police response that aims to identify and arrest anyone responsible for inciting violence or the destruction of property. An effective police communication strategy should be in place to counter any rumours propagated on social media or by scrupulous opportunists. There is need to saturate identified trouble spots with police personal, as it not only reassures the local community of their safety, but also prevents an escalations in violence.

There is need for the government in power to address the economic malaise with honesty and seriousness. Local and international bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and cooperating partners have already suggested fiscal measures that can either halt the economic downturn or improve our economy. These are not simple pills to swallow, they require sacrifice from both the government and its citizenry. Simple popularistic decision and continued unsustainable borrowing will take us nowhere.

Politicians also need to desist from actions or statements that elevate violence, racial and tribal hatred at the expense of peaceful and civil resolution of conflicts. Young people in particular look up to political leaders for inspirations and solutions to the many problems that the face. This in essence places great responsibility not only on the decisions that politicians make, but also their conduct. Our political leaders must discourage politics of violence and embrace civility as the basis for democratic dispensation.

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Start: 2019-07-01 End: 2019-07-31